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Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark Poster

A young girl is sent to live with her father and his girlfriend in a spooky New England mansion. She discovers that the mansion is host to a colony of supernatural creatures that want something from her. A tight little thriller starring Guy Pearce, Katie Holmes, and introducing Bailee Madison as the beleaguered little girl. Reminiscent of The Haunting and other classic haunted house films, director Troy Nixey (with a little help from Guillermo del Toro) creates a spooky thriller that delivers the chills.

Guillermo del Toro helped write the screenplay for this modern remake of a beloved made-for-TV movie of the same name. Clearly, Guillermo wants to corner the market on creepy fairytales featuring children, and coming on the heels of films like Pan's Labyrinth and The Orphanage, del Toro is clearly a master of this subgenre.

The protaganist is 8-year-old Sally, who is sent to live in New England with her father. Her mother packs up all her clothes and sends her (alone) to her father. The writers striver to drive home a simple point: Sally is unwanted. She waits in the airport, under the watchful eye of airport personnel -- traveling alone. The crowning moment of abandonment comes when Sally realizes that she's not visiting her father, she's being permanently placed with him. Her father, Alex (Guy Pearce) tries to play the dutiful father, but his efforts feel forced and uncertain. Only his girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) makes a serious effort to befriend Sally, but is rebuffed again and again.

Alex and Kim are restoring a mansion, once owned by a famed folklorist and naturalist painter named Blackwood. The couple are unaware that Blackwood went mad after the disappearance of his son while living at the mansion decades ago. Sally hates the house because its so new to her, but slowly starts to detect that there's something strange about the house. As per this subgenre, children possess supernatural senses that adults always lack.

Sally discovers a hidden basement, and her father is intrigued. Alex's foreman, a gristled old German man (whose grandfather helped build the mansion) asks Alex to ignore the basement, to leave it bricked up. Of course, since Alex is desperate to get the mansion onto the cover of a presitigous architectural magazine, he ignores the warnings and delves into the hidden basement.

They find Blackwood's hidden art workshop, and it is very creepy, featuring a nightmarish mosaic and a mysteriously locked ash chute. Sally hears voices that promise to be her friend, that speak to all her feelings of abandonment and loneliness, and convince her to open the ash chute.

Sally soon learns that the creatures that whisper to her cannot withstand any amount of light, and that they may not be friendly. When she balks at their advances the creatures takes matters into their own hands. They shred Kim's dresses on the day she must meet investors and hide her father's shaving razor, further alienating the poor girl from the adults, pushing her closer and closer to joining them.

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark has just a few quick dashes of violence, relying more on atmospheric creepiness and quick glimpses of the creatures. When their true nature is finally revealed it will fall to Kim to try to protect Sally. The goblin-like creatures quickly prove that they can do more than just cause mischief, and all three main characters slide towards a shocking conclusion.

The creepiness here is well done. The creatures try to do horrible things, knowing full well that no one would believe that they exist. In one scene, Sally drops a nail behind the ash grate, and later when her father investigates he puts his ear up against the grating to listen. He lifts his ear away just moments before the creatures ram the nail back out through the grating. It's not just that the goblins are tiny and possibly everywhere; they're clever, and patient.

Great performances all around. Pearce is pitch perfect as the oblivious father, too embroiled in his own concrete world to understand (or even remember) the fairytale-like world that children inhabit. Katie Holmes comes across as ... well, Katie Holmes, which is fine. She isn't called upon to act beyond her comfort range, but she performs well. Both actors are overshadowed by newcomer Bailee Madison, who manages to convey a very wide range of emotions for such a young actress. At times scared and lonely, and at other time brimming with courage, she shines.

The producers have the good sense to show the creatures sparingly. This would be a good movie for pre-teens, but smaller children would likely have nightmares. Expect this film to see heavy rotation come Halloween, as it manages to be spooky without being overly gruesome.

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